Marketers are Human

Matthew Willcox’s The Business of Choice: Marketing to Consumers Instincts won the AMA’s Berry Book Award and I can see why. Willcox reviews many of the key points from the best academic books, for example, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and Vlad Griskevicius and Douglas Kenrick’s The Rational Animal. Where Willcox adds value is by bringing in a managerial perspective — he isn’t an academic but works in industry. To Willcox it is important to note that it isn’t just the consumers that make decisions; managers make decisions and managers are people too. They exhibit the same sort of effects that we see in consumers. “We use the same decision-making shortcuts as the people we want to influence” (Willcox, 2015, page 207). Marketers have to look at themselves if they want to influence people.

Importantly, to my mind, Willcox emphasizes that our decision making is mostly pretty good. I agree with him that you shouldn’t see behavioural research as a catalogue of why humans are useless. To him we are all descendants of winners. “Rather than thinking of non-conscious processes as a capricious driver of irrational behavior…[the processes] allow us to make intuitive, quick, effective, and in the majority of cases, successful decisions” (Willcox, 2015, page 20).

Given this when managers follow their gut instincts this may work very well much of the time. Unfortunately, it will also get you into trouble at predictable moments. I liked the illustrative story he gave from his colleague, a semi-professional chess player. In chess the great players most of the time know the best move automatically; following their instincts they will do quite well. If time was limited they could still do a good job. Yet, because they do have time to make their decisions the better players wait and think. Most of the time it doesn’t change their decisions but every now they spot a mistake in their automatic thinking. This is pretty uncommon but when they catch a mistake it increases their success. It may be uncommon to improve the decision but increasing the average quality of decisions just a little is the difference between good and great players.

Managers like chess players can often take the time to think through their choices. Ask yourself are you stuck following a familiar course of action because of status quo bias? If so, like a great chess player, you can increase your success with a little thinking about how things could be better. Managers can use academics’ findings and Wilcox’s ideas to improve their decisions just a little, which might make all the difference.

Read: Matthew Willcox (2015) The Business of Choice: Marketing to Consumers’ Instincts, Pearson.